Last Sunday afternoon many of us gathered for lunch in the sun or shade depending on your preference. It was a wonderfully relaxed affair including picnic blankets, chatter and games. The social nicities were done away with and a good time was had by all.
I have only had one meal where I have not been sure which set of cutlery or which wine glass to use next. Those sorts of meals are governed by all sorts of unwritten social codes and etiquette. But actually all meals are enjoyed most when diners do things that are expected of them. We teach them to our children - always say please and thank you. Keep your elbows off the table. Eat with your mouth closed and never talk with it full etc...
Martha welcomes Jesus into the home she shares with Mary her sister. Jewish meals, in fact Jewish life was bound by all sorts of social and religious rules. Luke has placed the story in a particular place in his account to alert us to something special about Jesus’ ministry. Jesus is redrawing boundaries between men and woman within Israel – blurring the lines which had been clearly laid down; redefining what it means to belong to God.
The real problem between Martha and Mary wasn’t the workload Martha had in the kitchen. The real problem was that Mary was behaving as if she was a man. In that culture, as in many parts of the world to this day, houses were divided into male ‘space’ and female ‘space’ – and male and female roles were strictly demarcated. Mary had crossed an invisible but very important boundary within the house – and another equally important boundary within her social world.
The public room was where the men would meet; the kitchen, and other quarters never seen by outsiders, belonged to the women. Only outside, where little children would play, and in the marital bedroom, would male and female mix. So for a woman to settle down comfortably among men was bordering on the scandalous. Who did Mary think she was?
To sit at the feet of a teacher was a decidedly male role. We hear about the Apostle Paul sitting at the feet of Gamaliel in Acts 22. He wasn’t gazing up adoringly and thinking how wonderful the great rabbi was; he was listening and learning, focusing on the teaching of his master and putting things together in his mind. To sit at someone’s feet meant, quite simply, to be their student. And to sit at the feet of a rabbi was what you wanted to do if you wanted to be a rabbi yourself. Mary had the audacity to quietly take her place as a would-be teacher and preacher of the kingdom of God. And what is astonishing is that Jesus completely affirms Mary’s right to do so.
Jesus affirms Mary’s decision to step away from household duties and to sit at his feet and listen to his words of eternal life. She has completely understood what it means to be a disciple. Martha though is jealous - I believe that is why she complains to Jesus. She wants to be where Mary is, but whether she feels more bound by the rules and expectations of others or not, she allows her provision of hospitality to Jesus to be distraction for her from her heart’s desire - to learn from him. That is surely why she invited him into their home in the first place. Jesus, I want to be where Mary is, but I won’t allow myself...
How often are we like Martha? Full of good intentions? Lord I will pray more, but first I need to... I will spend more time bible reading when I have first done... Jesus again and again when he teaches, says that we need to place God first in our lives. When we do, the rest will follow. If we want to deepen a friendship or strengthen a relationship we need to spend time with, talk to, listen to and give undivided attention to and be with that one person. The same is true with God. How often do we have Jesus to ourselves so to speak, and instead of taking the opportunity to listen and learn from him, to experience the love of God through him, to be a disciple, do we instead confine Jesus to an hour or so of worship on a Sunday morning? He longs to be with us and for us to be with him. Are we willing to put away the distractions of the tv, the computer, and like Mary, to make and take opportunities to meet with Jesus?
Over the course of this encounter, both Martha and St Luke the Gospel writer refer to Jesus as Lord on a number of occasions. This isn’t just more social etiquette. Lord or Adonai, is a respectful title of a distinguished guest, but the title was also used in place of the name of God - YHWH - written in the Old Testament scriptures. The Lord that Martha and Mary initially encountered was Jesus the Rabbi who would teach them about God and His ways. Later they and we are left in no doubt that we are being asked to discover this Lord is the same Lord who brought all things into being. The power of Almighty God, YHWH himself, is at work in and through Jesus of Nazareth. Where are we this morning? Are we hear to learn things about God from a good teacher, or are here to sit at Jesus’ feet and develop a relationship with him. A relationship for which he longs.
Jesus reassured Martha by her name. In Jewish society, what you are called or how you are named sometimes said things about you and your parentage, social standing, and family trade. When God reveals to Moses His name - I am that which I am - on Mount Sinai, God reveals everything conceivable about himself to successive generations. What's in Martha's name? Martha means 'Mistress.’ Our names are deep and precious to us, chosen carefully for us by those who love us. It is the things that are deep and precious in us that define who we are - our moral codes, how we speak or behave speaks volumes about us. To know someone’s name still, is to know something about them and invites them into a relationship with us.
Jesus called Mary and Martha by name into a living relationship with God through Him. It is a relationship that transformed life and death when their Jesus raised their brother Lazarus from the dead. Jesus clearly dearly loved them. Jesus clearly and dearly loves each of us. He longs to go from being our teacher to being our Eternal Friend; from being recognised by us a provider of information about God, to us recognising the power of God at work in Him.
This same Jesus calls us by name away from our distractions and beckons us over to sit at his feet. He asks for some of our time, not His Sunday time, so we can not only learn about eternal life, but as his disciples, can learn to live it.